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The Way It Is/ A.J. Allmendinger's move to NASCAR with Red Bull/Toyota may be a precursor to NASCAR's Toyota-dominated future

by Gordon Kirby
As expected, the new Red Bull NASCAR team announced this week that A.J. Allmendinger has signed a multi-year contract to drive one of the team's two Toyotas in the Nextel Cup Series. Brian Vickers will be Allmendinger's teammate in a pair of Toyota Camrys #s 83 and 84. Allmendinger starts work with the team this weekend in Atlanta and the following week in Texas, making his Cup debut in a Dodge originally entered for Bill Elliott.

We've been waiting for this announcement for more than a month since Allmendinger deflected any questions about his future at Elkhart Lake near the end of September. It was clear to many of us that weekend that Allmendinger's agent, Julian Jakobi's CSS Stellar company, was close to wrapping-up a lucrative deal for A.J. to move to NASCAR with Red Bull and Toyota. Allmendinger gave the game away when he preferred to look at the ground rather than the reporter when he was asked any such questions.

I was amused when veteran Italian-American racing writer Lino Manocchia sputtered disapprovingly at Allmendinger's bland, looking-at-the-ground response to Manocchia's question about the matter during the post-race press conference following A.J.'s fourth win of the year. "C'mon, A.J.!" Lino grumbled. "We all know where you're going!"

Now that Allmendinger's career change is public, I join Jerry Forsythe in wishing A.J. the best of luck in NASCAR. I first met Allmendinger five or six years ago at an end-of-season Skip Barber Big Scholarship run-off. For many years, until it disappeared a few years ago, I was a member of the judging panel for the Barber School's scholarship and there was no debate that year in awarding the $100,000 prize to young A.J. He went on to win the following year's Barber Dodge championship, then took the Atlantic title the next season with the fledgling RuSPORT team. It was clear all along that he was an excellent driver and an aggressive racer with fast hands and the ability to drive a loose car.

When the romance between Allmendinger and RuSPORT came apart this year Jakobi's group took a serious look at NASCAR and A.J.'s existing Red Bull connection led a natural path to Marty Gaunt's new Red Bull/Toyota team. At the same time, Jerry Forsythe offered Allmendinger a Champ Car lifeline which A.J. took full advantage of by winning three races in a row in his debut with Forsythe's team. Everyone was delighted to see him finally arrive as a winning Champ Car driver and there was a lot of excitement and hype about a new American open-wheel superstar. But in fact, A.J. had provided his agents with exactly the leverage needed to make a deal with Red Bull and Toyota.

Many people were shocked when rumors began to circulate that Allmendinger was seriously considering a move to NASCAR. He had always been a big proponent of Champ car racing, repeatedly declaring on his way up that Champ Car was his goal, not Formula One. In fact, he turned down a European Red Bull opportunity which was subsequently taken up by Scott Speed, and continued to preach the Champ Car mantra for a few years. But the power and lure of NASCAR and the cubic dollars of Red Bull and Toyota proved irresistable. "I accepted several weeks ago," Jerry Forsythe said, "that he wasn't going to be with us when his manager got back to me and asked for $3 million for next year."

Although he wouldn't confirm any of the details, Forsythe offered Allmendinger a handsome, seven-figure base salary with plenty more to be made in performance bonuses. But the larger guarantee from Red Bull/Toyota and the overall lure of NASCAR's big show proved a winning combination.

"I wished him well," Forsythe said, "But I told A.J. and his manager that I think they made a big mistake. I'm certainly very disappointed and the team is disappointed after all the effort they put in on his behalf this year."

Forsythe is not rushing into any decisions about who will replace Allmendinger as Paul Tracy's teammate next year in the team's blue and white cars. "That's not decided yet," Forsythe commented. "We've got some time. There's no urgency to make a decision. Certainly, we're going to look for an American first, then probably a Mexican if we can't find the right young American."

Forsythe has decided not to run Allmendinger at Mexico City and will replace him with 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice who will get a chance to earn a full-time ride. Forsythe said he may also run a third in in Mexico City for Michel Jourdain.

So Allmendinger has joined Toyota's bandwagon as it steadily gathers the teams and drivers for its assault on NASCAR. As I've written before in this space, Toyota Racing Development's Lee White told me at Daytona earlier this year that he thought his company won't really come onstream in NASCAR until 2010. And as I wrote at the time, when that happens it will be a deluge as Toyota's money, engineering capabilities, and commitment to winning and building better products begins to push its American competitors to the back of the field and maybe even out of the ballpark. As we all know, each of GM, Ford and Daimler Chrysler are facing profoundly fundamental problems these days and I personally can't see any them surviving Toyota's assault on the racetrack.

It's going to be interesting to watch Toyota's influence on NASCAR at this critical stage in America's industrial and car-making history with the serious issues facing the domestic automobile manufacturers.Toyota has already signed-up the media-savvy Waltrip brothers as team owners and it will be interesting to see which established NASCAR teams join the Toyota bandwagon as it gathers strength. In every other form of racing in which it's competed in the United States at least--although not at this point in F1--Toyota has out-spent, out-powered, out-politicked and eventually steamrollered the opposition, and in F1 today, of course, Toyota has established new standards for spending and enormity of operation.

Nor is it likely to be long before questions will be asked by the directors and bean counters at General Motors, Ford and Dodge. If Toyota kicks them in the butt like many people believe, how long will the cash-strapped Detroit dinosaurs keep spending on a losing proposition? Many NASCAR diehards can't imagine their favorite form of racing without Chevy and Ford, but by 2010 that question may become a real issue.

And too, it's expected over the next few years that Toyota Racing Development (TRD) will build motors, parts, and probably chassis too, for the entire stock car industry. Over the next few years TRD will move its operations from Southern California to Charlotte and Toyota's expansive embrace of stock car racing will help TRD become a serious profit center over time as well as pushing Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge to the margins of grass roots American racing.

Toyota has already arrived in midget racing, winning its debut USAC race last winter, and has also embarked on an NHRA Funny Car program for 2007. To many observers, it appears that history is on Toyota's side in all this as many of GM and Ford's UAW employees or their children inevitably will end up working in non-union shops for Toyota and Honda, a trend that is already taking place.

We've seen the dire effects Toyota wrought in each of IMSA, CART and IRL as they out-spent and eventually out-engineered their competitors, then left the series for dead. People say the same thing won't happen in NASCAR because NASCAR is too big, too strong, and will control Toyota's money-spending and engineering. But the fact is--witness the Allmendinger episode--Toyota gets what Toyota wants.

I remember a conversation with Chip Ganassi from six years ago when Juan Montoya was about to leave CART for F1 with Williams. Alex Zanardi had made the same move two years before after winning a pair of CART championships with Ganassi. "How do we keep them here?" Chip asked casually. "It's simple," I responded. "You've got to have the sponsorship to pay them as much money as they're going to get paid in F1 and also provide as much prestige for winning races and championships."

These days, it's not about matching F1 salaries or prestige which, sad to say, is an impossible task for Champ Car or IRL teams. It's about trying to match NASCAR, which is equally impossible! Times change, but money still rules the sport.

In closing, it's a pleasure to report that PL Newman extended his racing career for another year after driving his Corvette to victory at Lime Rock last weekend. Despite bad weather the octogenarian team owner and amateur racer came through to take the lead and run away from the field. Even a late-race, full-course yellow and restart couldn't prevent PLN from prevailing at his home track.

I'm told that on the drive to the track, Newman told his wife Joanne that this would be his last rodeo. But on the drive home Ms Woodward asked, "If you can still drive so well, how can you stop now?" So they agreed that PLN will race for one more year.

The rest of us can only hope we'll have half the enthusiasm and physical ability when we hit our eighties.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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